There lies much debate among fly anglers regarding the use of barbed vs barbless flies and hooks, and which is the better choice. There are many posts in fly fishing blogs across the web discussing this exact topic, but I have found many of them to be rooted in emotion presenting little to no factual data to their audience.
It makes logical sense to assume a barbless hook would have less impact on a fish than a barbed hook, but whats the reasoning behind this? It may not be as clear as you think.
In this article, I will be taking an unbiased position regarding the use of barbed and barbless flies and hooks. Though I personally choose to use barbless flies, the goal is to present as much information as possible to the fly fishing community, allowing anglers to build their own views and opinions.
Before we start, it's important to remember that hook type only plays one role in the mortality rates of fish. Anglers should familiarize themselves will all aspects of safe fish handling and ethical fishing to ensure thriving fisheries for years to come.
Barbed vs. Barbless Flies
What's the difference between a barbed and barbless hook?
The difference between a barbed and barbless hook is the presence, or lack thereof a barb. Merriam Webster's definition of a barb is as follows: "a sharp projection extending backward and preventing easy extraction".
A barbless hook comes from the factory without a barb, but can also be created by grinding down or pinching the barb on a regular hook. This should always be done very carefully to ensure the integrity of the hook is not ruined. We always suggest starting with the type of hook you intend to fish with, but pinching your barbs works in a pinch (pun intended).
What's the purpose of barbed hooks and flies?
As the definition implies, a barbs purpose is to "prevent easy extraction". For the angler, this typically means a better chance of keeping your fish on the line. A fish will have a much more difficult time ridding its mouth of a barbed fly versus a barbless fly.
If you've ever been stuck by a porcupine quill, then you know just how effective barbs can be at preventing extraction.
Reasons why many anglers go barbless
There are two main reasons why an angler may choose to forgo the barbs, and fish with barbless flies and hooks. One being to adhere with local and regional regulations, and the other being to cause less of an impact on fish. There may be other contributing factors to this decision as well. One of the hidden benefits I have found to using barbless flies is an easier extraction out of your own skin!
Club, Local and Regional Regulations
Believe it or not, many areas and bodies of water actually prohibit the use of barbed hooks. For example, in the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Manitoba, barbed hooks are not permitted for use in ANY body of water. There are also many privately held bodies of water with rules in place pertaining to the use of barbed hooks. For anglers in these situations, and many others, fishing with barbless flies comes out of necessity.
Decreased Fish Mortality Rates
By far the most popular reason we hear from anglers, when asked why they fish barbless, is because "it's better for the fish". But does such a statement hold any merit? Let's look at this in a little more depth in an attempt to shed some light on the matter.
The only way to look at this from an unbiased standpoint, is to analyse evidence based data on the matter. Luckily for us, there are quite a few studies and data-sets available from various accredited institutions and individuals.
Case Study 1:
The first study we can look at comes out of Winnipeg's Fishery Management Division, and is the cumulative findings of M. R. FALK, D. V. GILLMAN and L. W. DAHLKE.
In 1974, 129 lake trout were caught utilizing barbless and barbed tackle, and their mortality rates were monitored for up to 10 days after. Of the 129 lake trout, 72 were caught using barbed hooks, and the other 57 on barbless hooks. The observed mortality rates are as follows:
Barbed Hooks: 6.94%
Barbless Hooks: 7.02%
As you can see, based on the findings in this study, there was no statistical difference in the mortality rates across hook types. Instead, they determined that hook placement, and handling time were far more detrimental to fish mortality rates. Fish hooked in critical zones such as the gill plates suffered profuse bleeding and increased mortality with both barbed and barbless hooks.
One important observation that was noted is the following. "The degree of hook damage and bleeding was generally light, with slightly less damage inflicted by barbless hooks."
Though no direct statistical connection was found in this study, the groups observations help us to make some assumptions. If damage inflicted with barbless hooks is less, albeit slight; perhaps over a larger study group a statistical connection would be observed.
Lets look at something more in depth.
The second data-set we will look at, is a quantitative meta-analysis which summarizes findings from over 107 different hooking studies, taking place over many years. It is the cumulative work of Daniel Huhn, Robert Arlinghaus and the Inland Fisheries Management Laboratory of Germany.
One of the key findings through the completion of this meta-analysis, was the discovery of a direct link between barbless hooks and decreased mortality rates, especially in Salmonids.
"Mortality was significantly higher for fish captured with barbed hooks (14.6%) compared to fish caught with barbless hooks (8.2%)." Huhn P.155
This data directly contradicts the findings in the earlier mentioned study conducted in 1974. It seems that when larger sample sizes are studied, a statistical link does in fact exist between barbless hooks and fish mortality. With this, we can draw a conclusion that catch and release fishing with barbless flies, does in fact decrease fish mortality rates.
So, barbless hooks are better?
In catch and release fishing, limiting fish mortality is extremely important to preserving fisheries and ensuring they thrive for generations to come. With a statistical link between increased fish mortality rates, and the use of barbless tackle, it makes sense why so many choose to give up the barbs.
But its not as simple as tying on a barbless fly and calling it a day. There are numerous other factors that attribute to lower fish mortality rates, some of which have arguably a much greater impact than type of hook used.
The two largest factors in fish mortality rates across all studies were water temperature, and fish handling time. If anglers are placing emphasis on hook type, while ignoring safe handling practices, they are fighting a losing battle. In my opinion, fishing with barbless flies is an important first step to decreasing fish mortality rates. But we should also remember to practice safe handling techniques, minimize handling time, and refrain from fishing altogether when water temperatures are high.
Thanks for Reading!
1. Huhn, Daniele, and Robert Arlinghaus. “Determinants of Hooking Mortality in Freshwater Recreational Fisheries: A Quantitative Meta-Analysis .” Fischereiberatung, The American Fisheries Society, 2011, www.fischereiberatung.ch/news/Seminar_2018/Hooking_mortality.
2. Falk, M. R., et al. “COMPARISON OF MORTALITY BETWEEN BARBED AND BARBLESS HOOKED LAKE TROUT.” DEPARTMENT OF THE ENVIRONMENT FISHERIES AND MARINE SERVICE, Fishery Management Division Resource Management Branch Fisheries Operations Directorate Central Region Winnipeg, 1974, www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/Library/38891.pdf.
3. Bartholomew, Aaron, and James A. Bohnsack. “A Review of Catch-and-Release Angling Mortality with Implications for No-Take Reserves.” Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries, Springer, 20 July 2005, www3.carleton.ca/fecpl/pdfs/Bartholomew Review.pdf.